Skepticism, doubt, nuances and reason are not going through their best moment. In recent times, narratives have been homogenized, excluding anyone who disagrees and thinks differently.
Like a supermarket, these narratives are promoted and sold in packages. There is no possibility to customize. If you don’t like something or you detect discordant points, you automatically go to the opposite side of the speech because only two positions are considered: for or against. There are only good or bad.
That extreme polarization leaves no room for criticism or reasonable doubt. Instead of dialogue, is established a discussion of deafs in which insults and ad hominem attacks fly. Each one takes cover behind his truth and defends it tooth and nail, turning the other into his enemy.
In the realm of totalitarian thought, having different ideas is a crime. And there are always fanatic defenders of the truth ready to punish those who dissent, doubt or simply think. That is the dynamic that many religions have followed for centuries and that threatens to spread through our society in the form of fact-checkers with the pretense of officials of the Ministry of Truth.
However, the Ministries of Truth that have existed throughout history have not favored progress, rather the opposite. Evolution comes from the meeting of different ideas, from the synergy of opposites and the union of apparently unconnected universes.
The inability to accept contradictions, dualities and ambiguities intensifies the belief that one is right and the other is wrong, blurs rational thinking and consolidates dogma and mental rigidity. Instead, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function“, in the words of writer Scott Fitzgerald.
Rescue Pyrrho’s radical skepticism
There is always someone, somewhere, who will disagree with you. No matter how logical, sensible or documented your ideas may seem to you, there will always be a second opinion, a different perspective or, at the very least, a reasonable doubt.
John believes that leftist governments are better. Paul believes that those on the right are better. John believes that vaccines are safe. Paul is not so convinced. John is in favor of euthanasia. Paul is against … And so, ad infinitum.
The only certainty is that in life there are no easy answers or shortcuts. Everything has two faces. That is the central principle of skepticism proposed by Pyrrho of Elis, the first skeptical philosopher who made doubt his central problem.
Pyrrho began by noting something that Western society seems to have forgotten or, at least, no longer practices: everything has two faces and we are all invariably linked to our opinions, beliefs and thoughts. Therefore, we will always see the world differently from the others.
They say that Pyrrho accompanied Alexander the Great on his trip to India, where he met yogis and sadhus who spoke to him about Buddhist philosophy, which helped him understand the coexistence of opposites and the fact that our knowledge of the world is limited, often skewed and permeated by our experiences, expectations, and senses.
That leads to the second assumption of radical skepticism: we must bear in mind that any of us, or even all of us, could, at any moment, be wrong. In fact, history has proven it countless times. Therefore, no one can be a guarantor of the truth and no one should be immune from scrutiny and discrepancy, regardless of their social position, power or knowledge.
Pyrrho went one step further. He did not just doubt, question things and challenge ingrained beliefs, he claimed that there is no way to know what is true. His radical skepticism does not mean that all the arguments have equal validity or that some are not more logical or contrasted than others, it means that we cannot believe that we are possessors and guardians of an absolute truth and that the others are wrong. It means that we must leave room for discrepancy and change.
In fact, Pyrrho thought that we spend too much time and effort demanding definitive answers where there can only be doubt and ambiguity. We devote enormous psychological energy to arguing, getting angry and criticizing those who think differently, an attitude that ends up condemning us to unhappiness and mental paralysis.
Epoché, the ability to suspend judgment
The word “skeptic” comes from the Greek skeptikós, which means “the one who examines”, and from the Indo-European root spek which means “to look” or “to observe”. Therefore, the skeptic is not only one who doubts, he is fundamentally a researcher who observes reality.
However, if we observe reality through our beliefs, stereotypes and expectations, we will form a misrepresented and skewed image. To embrace skepticism and open ourselves to all possibilities, we need to develop what Pyrrho called epoché, which means “the suspension of judgment.” How is it achieved? Avoiding dogmas about thoughts and perceptions. That is, accepting the doubt, the ambiguity and the contradiction of the world.
Pyrrho proposed a method to suspend the judgment: gather arguments in favor of both positions in a dispute until they reach isósteneia; that is, they have the same strength. This will allow us to conclude that there are different opinions on an issue, so the most sensible thing to do is suspend the judgment – understood as a moral evaluation of what is good or bad, right or wrong.
Of course, radical skepticism does not mean that we cannot debate an argument and defend our opinion. Honest criticism is always legitimate. But we must be aware that it is just that: our opinion.
To apply the epoché, it would be good to start any conversation with the phrase: “this is just my opinion”. Thus we can learn to disagree, being aware that no one has the last word or can claim for themselves the right to decide what is right or wrong. We need to give up the need for absolute certainties and admit that our beliefs can be corrected.
Make room for contradiction
Recognizing the limits of our understanding provides a great benefit: it prevents us from getting into useless discussions and saves us all those negative emotions that are usually triggered. We learn to let go of the need to dogmatically defend our views because we cannot be 100% certain that they are correct. We stop arguing about topics that are going nowhere. We stop thinking that we are the owners of the truth and, above all, we open ourselves to different points of view that can enrich our vision of the world.
We need to regain that ability Scott Fitzgerald referred to, the ability to harbor contradictory ideas in our minds and to feel relatively comfortable with ambiguity because the world is a complex place and has no simple answers. We move in an environment of nuances where almost nothing is black or white. Embracing the extremes polarizes our attitudes and impoverishes our reasoning.
Therefore, we need to regain reasoned dissent and constructive criticism, intellectual humility and mental flexibility. We need to think more and moralize less. Conflicts will always exist. Different opinions will not disappear. If we want to live together we need to make room for radical skepticism – or at least that bit of skepticism necessary to open ourselves to new possibilities and understand that we are not owners of the absolute truth.
When we develop the epoché, when we finally open ourselves to ambiguity and embrace skepticism, we can achieve that state of ataraxia to which the ancient Greek philosophers aspired that today we could translate as serenity of mind. It is worthwhile, both for our mental balance and for social balance.
Thomson, J. (2021) Pyrrho and the Skeptical way of life: ignorance is bliss. In: BigThink.
Malo, P. (2021) Malos tiempos para el escepticismo. In: Hyperbole.